Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Pettiness and History

I have a friend who enjoys reading about Roman history, as I do, and the other night while we were talking, we got onto the subject of the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15th in the year 44 BC.  According to the Roman historian Eutropius, sixty or more men, among them many Roman Senators, participated in the stabbing of Caesar on the Roman Senate steps.  The conspirators stabbed Caesar 23 times, but historian Suetonius reports that a doctor who did an autopsy on Caesar established that only one of the stab wounds was fatal. This was the second wound, a chest puncture that pierced his aorta.  Here we have the first known post-mortem report in history, by the way, Roman CSI in action.  The Roman Grissom said that Caesar's death was mostly due to loss of blood from all the wounds.

Anyone who's been assigned Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in middle school or high school knows the basics of this story.  Shakespeare centers the play's action around Brutus.  The conspirators, led primarily by the Senator Cassius, try to persuade Brutus to join their assassination plot.  After much internal debate and struggle, Brutus joins.  Along with the others, he attacks and kills Caesar to help save Rome from the prospective abuses of power Caesar might unleash on Rome.  Adored by the populace, Caesar is on the verge of becoming king, and Caesar's killing, at least from Brutus' perspective, is an act intended to save the republic, Rome's freedom.

What about Cassius, though?  While Brutus may be motivated by what he considers patriotism, Cassius seems driven by envy of Caesar and pure ambition.  But does the picture of Cassius as presented by Shakespeare bear any resemblance to historical fact? This is what my friend was getting at when he asked me during our talk, "Do you know why Caesar was killed?"

Strange question.  And I answered, "Not beyond the usual. To save the republic supposedly."

To which my friend said that it had to do with lions.


Yes, lions.

Gaius Cassius Longinus

During a military campaign in Africa, Cassius had come into the possession of some lions. To own lions was a very prestigious thing at the time, and at a certain point, Caesar, exercising his position of power above Cassius, simply appropriated the lions because he wanted them for himself.  This infuriated Cassius, and as Plutarch, the Greek essayist and biographer born in 46 AD writes: Cassius was "a man of violent temper".  Plutarch adds: He was "rather a hater of Caesar on his own private account than a hater of tyranny on public grounds". Cassius was smart enough to know, however, that the conspiracy against Caesar, then forming because of Caesar's rising power, needed Brutus.  Only with Brutus' participation could the plotters have a chance of being seen as legitimate by the Roman populace. To this end, he arranged for certain of the conspirators to write graffiti around Rome in spots where he knew Brutus would pass.  The graffiti said things like, ""O that we had you now, Brutus!" and "O that Brutus were alive!"  Every day at locations where Brutus went to do his work could be found writings that said, "Brutus, are you asleep?" and "You are not really Brutus."  

In the end, of course, the appeals to Brutus worked. But it's odd to think of how such a momentous historical event was decided in part by the petty motivations of one human being with a personal animosity toward another.  You had the grand cause of saving the Roman republic's freedom, and you had a man enraged because the nation's leader took his lions. It's the personal mixing with the political, an aspect of history I've always found fascinating. I even shaped the plot of my last novel around the idea: Jack Waters is the tale of an American guy who gets involved in a Caribbean country's revolution because the leader of the country welshed on a poker debt he owes Waters.  

Freedom fighter or just a guy pissed off he got stiffed?  That's a question a reader might have reading Jack Waters, and it seems like so much of history, in one form or another, has this mix - the elevated blended with the small.  Though you can be sure of one thing: the people driven by petty motivations, by feelings like envy or resentment, along the lines of the Roman Cassius, will, like Cassius, do their best to disguise those motivations and make it seem they're fighting for something noble.


Dana King said...

I didn't know about lions. Thanks for sending me some learning.

It's amazing what will provoke people to do drastic things. Look at the current situation here. It's been said, and I have no reason to doubt it, that Donald Trump ran for president because Barack Obama (and Seth Meyers) were mean to him at a banquet.

scott adlerberg said...

I’d bet for sure that roast of Trump at the infamous banquet was a major motivation for him running for president and wanting to undo just about everything Obama did. Classic example.